When it comes to taking the perfect photo, choosing the right exposure settings and getting the perfect framing is only half the challenge. The rest – from fixing the levels to color correction – is done using professional photo editing software.
A wide range of professional photo editing applications are available, from industry standard software like Adobe Photoshop to specialist software like Photomatix and open source alternative choices such as GIMP.
In this guide, we’ll compare and review the top professional photo editing software so that you can find the perfect application for your needs as a photographer, your artistic style, your skill level and your budget.
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Free photo editing with GIMP
GIMP, short for the GNU Image Manipulation Program is a powerful free photo and graphics editing application. Distributed under a GNU license, it’s free for all users and perfect for mastering the skills of photo editing without paying for software.
Although GIMP is completely free, it’s far from short on features. Standard features include the ability to adjust levels and color balance in images, create pictures with multiple layers and use filters to modify the look and feel of an image.
With a huge variety of brushes and textures, GIMP is also good for graphic design, website design and corporate brand development. Its photo editing abilities are a tad less powerful than Photoshop’s, but still enough for amateur photographers.
GIMP’s open source development team hopes that it will eventually replace Adobe Photoshop as the industry standard photo editing application. While this might be ambitious, it’s far from impossible as GIMP is a powerful application in itself.
While GIMP is significantly less powerful than its main rival Photoshop, it’s a good free option for amateur photographers. Although it doesn’t stand out in any regard, it’s a balanced piece of software that belongs on any PC, Mac, or Linux computer.
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HDR photo editing with Photomatix
Would you like to learn how to capture stunning high-dynamic range (HDR) photos using your camera? The art of multiple exposure photography is heavily dependent on software, and the best software for HDR photo editing is Photomatix.
Photomatix is a range of specialist applications developed for photographers that love multiple exposure photography. Its huge feature set makes it easy to blend a series of exposures into the perfect high-dynamic range photo.
Like other professional photo editing software, Photomatix comes in two different varieties. The entry-level version, Photomatix Essentials, costs $39. The full version for professionals, Photomatix Pro, is available from $99.
Both versions are available for Mac OS X and Windows, and both run smoothly even on relatively basic systems. However, the image processing tasks that Photomatix is great at can require some serious memory and processing power.
Photomatix comes with an optional Lightroom plugin, which lets you export photos from Lightroom into Photomatix for further processing. This makes it a great digital tool for any serious HDR photographer’s photo editing arsenal.
Inexpensive and designed for beginners and professional photographers alike, both versions of Photomatix are great for producing high quality HDR photos. Needless to say, the quality of Photomatix’s HDR output far exceeds that exported by Photoshop.
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Professional photo editing with Photoshop
Some applications and websites are so famous they become verbs. When you need to search for something, you “Google” it. When you need to tweak a photograph to improve its color, contrast or style, you “Photoshop” it.
Adobe Photoshop is the industry standard photo editing application, and for many good reasons. Since its launch in 1990, it’s grown from a small but powerful photo editing application into the most popular photo editing app in the entire world.
Like other professional photo editing software, Photoshop is available as part of a large pack of creative applications. The current version of Photoshop – known as Photoshop CC – is part of Adobe’s new Creative Cloud software suites.
Designed with the professional photographer and hobbyist in mind, Photoshop has a huge variety of features. Making small tweaks to images – color correction, levels and the like – is quick and simple thanks to its simple yet powerful interface.
The standard version of Photoshop includes a wide variety of brushes, patterns and filters. Many more are available from third party developers due to the application’s massive support from independent developers and digital artists.
Photoshop is available in several different editing, each of differs in price and range of features. The standard version, Adobe Creative Cloud, is priced from $49.99 per month and offers access to Photoshop and a wide variety of other applications.
A cheaper photo editing application suite – Photoshop CC and Lightroom – can be used for $9.99 per month on an annual plan. This cheaper option is popular with beginner photographers looking to familiarize themselves with Photoshop.
Although its steep price makes it a serious investment for amateur photographers, the wide range of features and powerful editing tools offered by Photoshop gives it an important role in most digital photographers’ editing toolkits.
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Learn more about photo editing software
While GIMP, Photomatix and Photoshop are three of the most well-known digital photo editing applications, they’re by no means the only applications available for digital photographers.
Learn more about the best applications for digital photographers with our blog post on the best HDR software for photographers. Like taking photos on your phone? Our blog post on the best free photo editing apps for iOS and Android will help you take sharper, smoother, better looking pictures.